These are historic times for the cultivated meat and chicken sectors.

Fresh off getting production approvals, history was made this month when the first cultivated chicken was served at China Chilcano, one of celebrity chef José Andrés’ Washington, D.C., restaurants. But many obstacles remain before the new limited menu item can be served at scale and to the masses.

“Every day is a day where we’re trying to increase the likelihood that cultivated meat is the primary way of making meat on our planet,” said GOOD Meat CEO Josh Tetrick in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “Longer-term, where I see this going is most of the meat consumed is cultivated, not slaughtered. I think that will lead to much better outcomes for our own personal health and for the health of our planet.”

Cultivated meat uses a process of feeding animal cells in a bioreactor, similar to beer, that mimics how animals grow. The process is not new — several groups have been developing products for years — but the commercialization of food produced by the technology is a recent development. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service approved Tetrick's GOOD Meat and UPSIDE Foods (formerly Memphis Meats) to begin production at approved facilities in June. 

Looking ahead, Tetrick and others in the space are closely monitoring the industry's staggering costs and engineering, technical and capital challenges. Here's what you should know:

1. Restaurants will sell cultivated meat at a loss to be comparable to conventional meat. 

Each entree of the cultivated chicken marinated with anticucho sauce, native potatoes and ají Amarillo chimichurri served at China Chilcano will lose money every time it’s sold, Tetrick stated.

“We're not selling it to reflect the cost today, we're absorbing those costs as a company,” Tetrick said. “Ultimately for this to be below the cost or anywhere close to the cost of conventional chicken, beef and pork, we will need to make it in much, much larger volumes.”

Tetrick said the company plans to expand to a handful of more restaurants around the country over the next year to raise product awareness. Ideally, he hopes that improved awareness will help increase capital-raising capability and bring costs down.

“We've got to be OK with being at a very small scale right now and learning how to continue to do it better. And then in parallel, investing in much larger infrastructure, so that we can continue to grow our volumes,” Tetrick said. 

2. Industry players are pushing toward larger-scale production.  

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the industry is its production capacity. 

Today, GOOD Meat could make about 100,000 pounds of cultivated chicken per year if it ran its facility around the clock. According to USDA, per capita consumption in 2023 is estimated at about 101.2 pounds, meaning the facility could satisfy the annual demand of around 988 average consumers. 

“One butcher shop in Singapore, and two restaurants in the United States is not exactly scale,” Tetrick said of the company's current sales venues. “Now it's time to really scale this thing, and it is far from certain that we and other companies will be able to do it.”

Barak Zohar, chief technology officer and vice president of R&D at Israel-based Ever After Foods, told Agri-Pulse his company’s production platform may offer one solution to the cost-efficiency and scalability limits many companies face. Their technology uses a patented 3D cell expansion environment that can process a high amount of cultivated meat with less space. 

“Using our pilot system, we can get more than 10 kilograms of cultivated meat with only a total volume of 35 liters of medium,” Zohar said, which offers a 700% increase in productivity when compared to other platforms.

He added the process uses less of the feed, or medium, to duplicate the cells within the small bioreactors with columns in it.

“We have an advantage because in our process, we don’t need to do anything to separate the cells or tissues from the media because by design it’s already separated,” he said of the cells in a scaffolding-type of column. In addition, by design, the process can recycle the media, which offers additional cost savings. 

Each company is working on making its own improvements. Ever After Foods plans to offer the technology in its own product line as well as form collaborations with other companies to utilize its technology.

Ever-After-Foods-550.jpgEver After Foods employees work on the company's cultivated meat production process.

“I think regardless of whether you're using 3D printing or perfusion or fed-batch, there's no company that is going to be making tens of millions of pounds in the next two years,” Tetrick said, but all will be pushing toward those needed improvements to bring costs down.

3. The regulatory pathway has been made for future companies. 

With GOOD Meat and UPSIDE Foods receiving regulatory approval from USDA — and previously from FDA, as the agencies share oversight of the products — other companies are likely to quickly follow suit.

The companies needed about two years to navigate the approval process, a breakneck speed compared to genetically engineered salmon, which took 20 years to get its approval.

Tetrick said GOOD Meat plans to begin the regulatory process for its cultivated ground beef product sometime before the end of the year with FDA, and has its eyes set on a cultivated bacon product in the next few years.

Zohar also said GOOD Meat and UPSIDE's work on achieving regulatory approval set the basic trust level between companies and authorities that the products are safe and standardized. 

“I think this will shortcut the time for other companies working with authorities because there are some assumptions and agreements on several things and some of the validations,” he said.

Tetrick said although Singapore approved the sale of GOOD Meat's cultivated product in 2020, the United States’ approvals will also help in other countries. Zohar added he thinks it will accelerate the approval procedures in Europe and New Zealand.

4. The government might be asked to take on a bigger role.

GOOD Meat believes it's important for the U.S. government to invest in the future of food, including through research and development and consumer education. The company also hopes to see the government work to build a market with both regulatory certainty and room for innovation so companies might be able to build out a workforce through the new supply chain. 

Tetrick said the company wants cultivation plants to qualify for USDA's Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program as well as the Department of Energy’s clean energy guaranteed loan programs. 

As for the farm bill, GOOD Meat wants to expand scholarship programs for historically Black colleges and universities as well as tribal schools and boost funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. 

5. Existing players are concerned about the use of “meat.”

USDA currently requires lab-grown meat to be clearly identified as cell-cultivated meat. Tetrick said it is not misleading consumers to state the product is meat.

“It’s technically, chemically and physically meat. So, to not call it meat we think would be misleading to the consumer,” Tetrick said. “Whether it is farm-raised meat, conventional meat or cultivated meat, that descriptor should be there.”

But the debate about what adjectives might also be included on labels is lingering.

Under the USDA-FDA framework, labeling regulation is left to FSIS. 

In December 2021 comments to FSIS, the National Chicken Council pushed for labels that clearly identify cell-cultured protein products and traditional animal protein products.

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“It is not appropriate to refer to cell-cultured products using terms such as ‘clean meat,’ nor should these products be named or described in a way that disparages conventional animal proteins,” NCC said in its comments.

In a FAQ from NCC on cell-cultured meats, the group also argued “there are also unsupported claims that cell-cultured products are superior to conventional animal proteins. But until such cell-cultured ‘meat’ health claims are substantiated by scientific evidence, such statements should be prohibited.”

NCC and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also questioned consumer demand for alternatively produced proteins.

Ethan Lane, NCBA's vice president of public policy, said the beef industry is “willing to meet any competitor on a level playing field” and supports a consumer’s right to choose.

“However, we continue to call for lab-grown and other alternative proteins to be clearly identified, so consumers can knowingly continue to choose real beef, pork and poultry instead of lab-grown imitators,” Lane said in a statement to Agri-Pulse.

6. Cultivated meat companies do not intend to go away.

Tetrick sees the expansion of cultivated meat as a multigenerational project that will continue to build on the success of today and push toward further improvement. 

There are now 156 cultivated meat companies in 2022, according to the Good Food Institute’s “State of the Industry” report. Since investments began for many of the companies — around 2016 — cultivated and seafood companies have invested $2.78 billion in the race to create futuristic meat.

All of the top five U.S. conventional meat companies, as well as the top five U.S. consumer packaged goods food companies, are involved with alternative proteins in some capacity, GFI reported.

To date, there are 18 operational facilities worldwide dedicated to producing cultivated meat or seafood since the first known pilot-scale facility opened in 2017.

Zohar believes the next few years will bring more collaboration between companies with more value-oriented investments and consolidations toward commercialization.

He also expects scientists and engineers to continue to move from the pharmaceutical industry to the cultivated meat sector.

He said he personally has taken on this mission to produce meat without slaughter because it allows people to still eat what they enjoy while accommodating sustainability and environmental goals.

“I don't think we need to cause harm because we like good tasting food. It didn't have to be that way. We don't have to harm our planet to enjoy chicken and beef and bacon. We can do it without all that harm,” he said. “We want to meet people where they are and that's what cultivated meat is about.”

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